Fed up. It’s a feeling with which I am very familiar–witness a blog post I wrote last fall. When I stumbled across a book with that title, I knew I would have to read it. It took several months of waiting to get it from the library, but I finally got my hands on it.
Fed Up: Emotional Labour, Women, and the Way Forward stems from a column author Gemma Hartley wrote for Harper’s Bazaar which, I confess, I had not read before picking up this book. In her book, Ms. Hartley aims to discuss the heavy mental load married/partnered women tend to carry as they manage their household and the individual lives of all within it. The “way forward” comes toward the end, when she offers a way of framing the conversation about the mental load so both partners understand the extent of it and how they can divide it more equitably, without anyone getting defensive or angry.
Ms. Hartley succeeds in outlining some of the frustrations women tend to feel: the fact the mental load is invisible to everyone else; the cultural norms that make it appear women, with their supposedly more caring natures, are better at this kind of stuff than men; the challenge of getting husbands/partners to understand that expecting women to ask for help when they need it is part of what makes the mental load so exhausting. Later in the book she talks about the quest for perfectionism many women get mired in, which adds to their general fatigue and frustration. She also notes the importance of prioritizing, of getting essential things done and letting the other stuff slide. I can’t argue with that advice.
Yet there is much about this book that frustrated and exhausted me, starting with the opening pages where the author chooses a curious example of “emotional labour” to prove how real her struggles are: her husband’s failure to book a housecleaning service, specifically for her bathrooms and floors. She had asked for the service as a Mother’s Day gift. With a bit of twisted logic, she notes that the clean house would just be a bonus; the real gift would be relief from the “emotional labour” of completing the task of hiring a house cleaner which, in her mind, would entail asking friends on Facebook for a recommendation, calling four or five additional services, getting quotes, researching and vetting each service, arranging payment, and scheduling the appointment. In the end, her husband called one service, decided it was too expensive, and cleaned the bathrooms himself. Yet she was unhappy because he didn’t go about this task the way she would have, nor discern from her request for tidy bathrooms that she wanted the entire house cleaned.
I almost stopped reading at this point for a couple of reasons. First, this story struck me as incredibly out of touch. Hiring a cleaning service is not an option for most women, so citing it as an example of an unbearable mental load is a bit of an insult to women who must actually scrub their own toilets while raising young children and working outside the home. Second, I found myself wondering how this was emotional labour. Procuring a house cleaning service in the manner Ms. Hartley outlined is a choice, not an expectation or requirement. And herein lies one of the problems I had with her book: she throws the term “emotional labour” around very freely, assigning it to things we must do and also to things that are really not necessary. For example, she states that she practised “emotional labour” early in life by straightening a tie for her middle-school boyfriend and memorizing his schedule even though he never bothered to learn hers. As with the house cleaning story, I could not understand how either of these things were “emotional labour.”
Indeed, as others have written, Hartley’s definition of “emotional labour” varies widely from the original, coined by Arlie Russell Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart. Hochschild was interviewed in The Atlantic after Hartley’s book came out, and noted that she is “horrified” at the distortion of the term’s original meaning.
For Hochschild, emotional labour is a very specific aspect of paid labour, tantamount to physical and mental labour. It involves “trying to feel the right feeling for the job” and requires a person to evoke or suppress feelings as part of their work. For example, a flight attendant who must be pleasant at all times, even to the most unruly passengers, and a bill collector who must be tough on customers who have lagged behind in payments. These people do physical and mental labour in their work, but they are also required to “manage and produce” feelings as part of their jobs. For Hochschild, it is an “overextension” to apply the term “emotional labour” to the everyday chores people do or the perfectionism they choose to seek, whether it be in maintaining a clean house or planning and executing a flawless holiday dinner.
For Gemma Hartley, it seems emotional labour is the term for every annoyance in life and for her decision to take on the work of perfecting her husband’s supposed shortcomings. In her world view, “men often have a slower timeline or lower standard when it comes to domestic work, so women take it on themselves.” Hartley blames our culture for the perfectionist pressure it puts on women–a valid point, to some degree–but, no matter how you slice it, the attempt to attain this perfection is not emotional labour.
Her lack of clarity on the meaning of “emotional labour” is particularly troubling in her chapter on harassment and abuse. After detailing a woman’s experience of living with an abusive man and explaining how she learned how to “move around him as he raged through the world,” Hartley attempts to draw a comparison to her own struggles to balance the emotional labour she and her husband perform. While it could not have been her intention, she seems to equate an abused woman’s “fear-based” form of emotional labour with her own “self-preserving” version, making it seem that a woman frustrated with her husband’s lack of tidiness faces the same kinds of challenges as one being forced to walk on eggshells around her time bomb of a partner. She believes all women, abused or not, have in common the need to “keep the peace” with their partners until they reach a breaking point where they have to seek change. For her, that breaking point was “a seemingly innocuous blue Rubbermaid storage bin” left on the floor by her husband. For the other woman, it was the day she realized “she could never bring a child into their abusive relationship.” A storage bin does not equal physical abuse, and the implication that the emotional labour in both of these situations is similar is quite appalling.
Beyond the distorted definition, there are some troubling contradictions in this book.
Hartley talks throughout the book about the social conditioning that causes men and women to believe females are naturally better equipped to handle the mental load of household management and raising children, and rails against some of the gender stereotypes at its root. Yet, her book contains some egregious male stereotypes, including the dig about their lower standards, cited above. In the first chapter of the book, she also says: “…men have a film of dust over their eyes which stops them from seeing the mess. The things they don’t want to see they render invisible. ” She notes that this is a “bad joke” but cites it with a fair degree of seriousness, before reinforcing the intent of the joke with a list of men’s transgressions she’s heard from “every woman” she knows.
She speaks of men using “emotional labour” to attract (read: manipulate) women and abandoning it once a relationship starts, thereby dashing the dreams “we” (all women) have of blissful romance. In this case, emotional labour requires men to think “deeply” about their partners and plan “grand gestures.” To support her point, Hartley cites Nicholas Sparks movies as “what young heterosexual women call romance,” then lists the “reality” of dating: men who talk constantly about exes, expect women to wait around patiently while they play video games, take women to Hooters on a date (seriously?), or show they are “progressive by wanting to split the bill after downing 80% of the meal.” In her words, these guys are not quite “prince charming.” Her stereotypes of men and women are both hard to swallow.
In another contradiction, Hartley states that women should not infantilize men and treat them like children, yet she does just that. She notes that she is the one who keeps track of her husband’s keys, makes his dental appointments, and picks up his socks. (Um, maybe stop doing that to lighten your mental load?) There is also the condescension evident when she realizes that, left to his own devices, her husband would figure things out and do the cleaning unbidden. Her assessment of his efforts? “Not perfect, but damn good.”
Her husband is not the only one to be judged. Toward the end of the book she notes that the balance we seek in the mental load “won’t look the same for everyone,” that “everyone has his or her own idea of what a fair and equitable relationship looks like,” which is absolutely true. Yet just pages earlier, she questions a woman named Stephanie Butler whose husband does not help with baby care. Butler states that she is happy with the balance of labour in her relationship, noting that while he may not be comfortable caring for an infant, her husband shops for groceries, cooks, cleans, and does his own laundry. Yet, instead of accepting that Butler’s version of balance looks different than her own, Hartley concludes that Butler has deluded herself into believing everything is fine, aided and abetted by her Christian religion which teaches her that her heavy load is God’s work. The religious angle is a puzzling red herring that results in a troubling generalization: Christian women are manipulated by their religion into accepting a domestic status quo they aren’t really happy with. If only they could see things the way Hartley does, they would realize they have been duped, or at least that seems to be the point the author is making.
I have no doubt Hartley’s frustrations are genuine, but she seems to believe her experience is universal and her book suffers for it. She assumes all women want the same things, whether that be romance, a spotless house, or a relentlessly organized life. She focuses her interviews on women with viewpoints similar to hers, and goes so far as to criticize one with a different perspective. She is too dismissive of men’s own “emotional labour,” including that of her husband. And she makes far too many generalizations about men, assuming most are content ignoring the mental load their partners carry, while failing to highlight men who make equal contributions.
Overall, the book felt like it was thrown together quickly without adequate research and with too many axes to grind. I was hoping for a more balanced approach, one that cites current research into the divide of household labour, acknowledges changes in culture that have led more men to take on domestic work, and talks about solutions without male stereotypes and passive-aggressive commentary about men’s failings as partners. I’m not saying don’t read the book, but if you do, be prepared to do some “emotional labour” of your own as you wade through it.